In 1943, the Economist magazine offered this helpful advice to the Labour Party: “The Labour Party is based on an out-of-date doctrine. Its social basis does not match modern social structures. Its dependence on the trade unions ties it to conservative sectional interests. The ‘labour coalition’ of the party and the unions should be scrapped and replaced by a regroupment of non-Conservative forces”.
Two years later the Labour Party won a landslide general election victory, hailed by its national election organiser as the moment when “the working classes, hitherto a subject race, succeeded in the organisation of political power and became the ruling class in their own land.”
Clearly, therefore, there is nothing new in calls for the Labour Party to cut itself loose from affiliated trade unions as its only means of survival. According to Lewis Minkin’s history of the Labour-union link, The Contentious Alliance:
“For the Centre and the Right, it became a priority to seek the destruction of the union-Party relationship. Often they diagnosed inevitable degeneration or suicide as the future of the labour movement.”
But when Minkin spoke of “the Centre and the Right”, he was referring to the centre and right of the political spectrum as a whole, not to the centre and right within the Labour Party.
In fact, for virtually the entire twentieth century, even the Labour Party right wing accepted the Labour-union link as the bedrock of the movement. More often than not, it was usually the right wing who benefited most from the link. The block vote generally protected Labour’s parliamentary leaders against conference challenges from left-minded local Labour activists.
Even the future leaders of the breakaway SDP, such as Bill Rodgers, acknowledged just two years before their split that “there is no salvation for the Labour Party in a break with the trade union movement.” The subsequent fate of the SDP was to prove him correct.
The fact that the “traditional” right wing treated affiliated unions as the natural allies of the Labour Party — even if that alliance, to use Minkin’s expression, could sometimes be “contentious” — underlines the seismic shift represented by the emergence of Blairism in the Labour Party in the 1990s.
The Blairites were hostile not just to the policies which the party might adopt because of its links with the unions. They were hostile to the links themselves. They were the leaders of a labour movement which they did not think should even exist.
For some Blairites the solution was to reduce the role of the unions in the party to such a degree that it became meaningless. For others, the solution was to break the link completely.
Two years after Blair’s election as party leader his ally and fellow Labour MP Stephen Byers was already briefing the media that the Labour Party might sever its links with the unions.
In 2005 the ex-CWU general secretary and then Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson advocated that the unions’ share of votes at Labour Party annual conference be cut to 15%.
In early 2007 Johnson lined up with former TGWU general secretary Bill Morris and the fake-left Jon Cruddas MP to advocate further reductions in the unions’ role in the Labour Party.
In late 2010 Blairites returned to the attack on Labour-union links. MPs Andy Burnham and Tessa Jowell “questioned” affiliated union members having a vote in Labour Party leadership elections. Margaret Hodge MP advocated that Labour “cut the umbilical cord” with the unions on the grounds that they were “irrelevant in British society”.
And ex-MP Alan Milburn — so right-wing that some Tories wanted him to be offered a post in the Con-Dem coalition government — proposed that the unions “should no longer have a structural relationship with Labour.”
In February of this year Alan Johnson again raised the issue of reducing the unions’ role in the Labour Party.
In an interview in the magazine of the ultra-Blairite “Progress” faction, he attacked union leaders as “fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming” and called for their share of the vote at Labour Party conference to be cut to “about a third”.
Unsurprisingly, when Miliband announced his proposals to replace “opting out” by “opting in”, they won applause from these old-time Blairites and from Blair himself (“bold and strong ... long overdue and probably, frankly, I should have done it when I was party leader”).
Miliband’s proposals are not, as Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has claimed, “an opportunity rather than a threat.” His proposals represent the latest stage in the long-term Blairite project of destroying what defines the Labour Party as the party of organised labour in Britain.